Asylum seeker expert panel

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia: the good, the bad and the unexpected

The majority of refugees in Malaysia are from Myanmar. EPA/Ahmad Yusni

Many so-called “irregular migrants” who end up on boats bound for Australia have come through Malaysia at some stage of their odyssey to claim asylum and protection.

Protection is vital for people fleeing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Malaysia offers some protection for those seeking asylum.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese boat people started to arrive in Malaysia. Soon they were arriving in large numbers and Malaysia became the temporary home to more than 250,000 of them. But Malaysia was only willing to act as an offshore processing entity as it deemed the influx of such vast numbers and their ethnic make-up (many were ethnic Chinese) as problematic.

Under the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees of 1989, Malaysia became a first protection space for these boat people. They were housed in camps and had to wait several years for a durable solution that usually meant resettlement in a third country.

In 2005, the last Vietnamese refugee left Malaysia and was voluntarily repatriated to Vietnam after spending more than 20 years in Malaysia. He had spent most of this time in camps and after the closure of the Sungai Besi camp in 1996 lived amongst the community as an illegal immigrant.

Malaysia, like most other Southeast Asian countries, has not signed the refugee convention and protocol and therefore asylum seekers and refugees are deemed to be illegal immigrants by law, although the UNHCR continually receives assurances that refugees with UNHCR papers will not be arrested by authorities. This often does not trickle down to enforcement staff on the ground and transgressions are occasionally reported.

The situation has improved over the past two years with a decrease in raids and less overt rent-seeking on the part of the authorities. Nevertheless, life for refugees and asylum seekers remains tough in Malaysia, as they generally receive no direct financial support for housing and food from the UNHCR. Thus they must find illegal work to support themselves and their families.

This puts them at risk of daily detection and imprisonment or at least a variety of rent-seeking mechanisms, such as authorities asking for “financial contributions”. This form of daily harassment is commonplace and many refugees factor this into their daily travels to and from work. Others work for employers that also provide them with makeshift housing where they work long hours for minimal pay. Many receive just $200-300 a month to work as mechanics, gardeners or on plantations.

But these are the lucky ones. Life is much worse for those who cannot find work. Most vulnerable are smaller refugee communities, for whom finding paid work is hardest. Somali, Sudanese and other African refugees in particular face hardship, often relying on family and friends resettled to the West for survival.

Some report racism from potential employers and landlords that makes even finding a place to live difficult. In desperate situations such as these, people quickly lose all hope for a better future resulting in severe mental health issues.

Health Equity Initiative, a Malaysian NGO working with refugees on mental health issues, issued a report in 2010 titled “Between a rock and a hard place”. It paints a damning picture of the situation for Afghan refugees in Malaysia.

They are trapped in an existence neither here nor there, where their children have minimal access to education, the parents have no work rights and their hope for a better future is on indefinite hold.

It is desperate situations such as these that push some to contemplate the treacherous journey by boat to Australia. But this is only the smallest part of the story. There are around 100,000 asylum seekers and refugees registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, and an additional tens of thousands of asylum seekers outside of UNHCR purview.

The vast majority of them have found some limited protection in Malaysia, many have work and some access to community run schools and health centres. In 2011, UNHCR resettled 8,370 refugees to third countries, a number that will increase this year. There clearly is hope for some and they are making the best of the situation.

Refugees from Myanmar, who are the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, are very well organised, maintain community organisations and provide an array of services in combination with local NGOs. This is much harder for smaller refugee communities, which do not have the resources, cultural or religious support networks and critical mass of leaders and organisers at their disposal.

Thus refugee communities in Malaysia have varied experiences, which will influence their responses to long waiting times for resettlement, educational and work opportunities. The diversity of these experiences gets lost when we focus on the very limited amount of boat people arriving in Australian waters.

The situation in Malaysia makes it paramount to respond to the people dying on their way here through a regional lens that incorporates an understanding of the pressures in source, transit and destination countries.


Read the rest of The Conversation’s asylum seeker coverage:

Asylum seekers and Australia: the evidence

The Conversation panel on asylum seekers: meet the experts

Infographic: global refugee populations 1975-2010

Refugee intake starts in the region: making a difference in regional burden sharing

What does the Australian public really think about asylum seekers?

Resettling refugees: the evidence supports increasing our intake

What role does Australia play in accepting the world’s refugees?

Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’, and why don’t they get on planes?

Uncomfortable truths: busting the top three asylum seeker myths

There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works

There’s more to regional collaboration than the Malaysia Arrangement

How immigration policy harms asylum seekers’ mental health

Asylum seekers in Indonesia: why do they get on boats?

Preventing deaths at sea: asking the experts on asylum seekers